Manomet Bird Observatory

My first year of college was an interesting one. Unlike most first-year college students who leave home and live without their parents around for possibly the first time ever, I stayed in my childhood home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and my parents went away for the year (a sabbatical at Cambridge University). I tried to keep up with birding and managed a pelagic trip off Rhode Island and a couple Linnean Society field trips (Brigantine NJ and Cape Ann MA) plus some forays into Central Park, but for the most part my focus was on studying. The monthly Linnean meetings were a key part of maintaining my sanity, and a presentation in the spring of 1974 was a life changer. Kathleen S. Anderson, Executive Director of Manomet Bird Observatory, gave a talk about Manomet and the research and educational opportunities they offered. She also mentioned their intern program! I popped up as soon as the talk and questions ended and asked how I could apply for an internship. She invited me up for an interview and within a few days I was on a bus headed north. I met with MBO staff, notably Ms. Anderson and staff scientists Brian Harrington and Trevor Lloyd-Evans, and it wasn’t long before I had secured a spot in the program. I have rarely been so excited about anything in my entire life. I was about to start the most wonderful summer – and fall, as it turned out – of my existence.

Within a week or so of completing my first year of college, I packed my bags and was once again on a bus north, this time to stay and begin a glorious adventure. Numerous research opportunities were available at Manomet. Brian Harrington was conducting projects on various species of shorebirds including monitoring the Common Tern and Piping Plover populations at Plymouth Beach. A visiting scientist was looking at behavior of Gray Catbirds on Manomet’s property. Trevor Lloyd-Evans was in charge of the banding program, which was a large–scale operation: as I recall there were around 40 mist nets on several acres of the 40-acre property, and we kept them open from dawn to dusk during spring and fall migration, closing them for part of the day if it got too warm out (we didn’t want birds waiting in nets in the hot sun). Given that the number of birds netted was so high during migration, once we had processed the birds from a net round, it was time to go back out and check the nets again. We took with us on each round a number of drawstring cloth bags (all hand-made by volunteers). The nets are made of nylon mesh of about 1 cm weave, with 4 or 5 pockets such that a bird would fly across the path, encounter the net and fall gently into a pocket and rest there until we came to take them out. To do this we would hold the bird gently but firmly with the two tibiotatarsi between two fingers and work the threads of the net away from the bird. Many challenges presented themselves along the way: chickadees tended to grasp the net very tightly with their toes, and peck at our cuticles every step of the process. Cardinals also pecked and their robust beaks could cause significant pain, as did those of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. It was always immensely exciting to make the rounds of the mist nets, as you never knew what you would find – it was like Christmas! I suppose we had many exciting and rare birds but the one that stands out most vividly in my memory was an Olive-sided Flycatcher, which presented me with the type of moral dilemma probably only faced by the young, since at my advanced age I see no dilemma at all. I had never seen an Olive-sided Flycatcher so this would have been a life bird for me. You can’t count a netted bird on your life list, so I thought if I released it and then was able to identify it as it flew away, I could count it. It flew off quite quickly and there was no way I could ID it on the wing, so I came sadly to the obvious conclusion that my life Olive-sided Flycatcher would have to wait.

So, once a bird was removed from the net, it went into its own cloth drawstring bag to be carried back to the banding lab for processing. The work bench at the lab was equipped with a row of hooks underneath so we could hang the bags up, and this dancing array awaited the recording of a variety of data. The bench also had good lighting, scales for weighing each bird (first popping the animal beak down in an orange juice can to anchor it to the scale), magnifiers for closer examination of feathers and skin, and rulers and other measuring devices.

We banded the bird with an aluminum Fish & Wildlife Service band of the appropriate size (catbirds were also color-banded for recognition of individuals for the local behavior study), weighed the bird, measured wing length, checked for parasites such as ticks and lice, checked for moult, and then released the bird through a special little hatch door built for that purpose. Someone with a clipboard would log all the data as the bander called them out. The days were long – we didn’t have Fitbits or tracking apps in those days but we logged many miles making net rounds, and at night we would “sleep the sleep of the just” as my mother used to say and be up and at it again early the next morning.

With so many birds passing through our hands each day, multiple research opportunities presented themselves. I quickly became enamored of Empidonax flycatchers and Trevor and I analyzed their various measurements to see if the different species fell into their own multivariate spaces. I have never lost my love of flycatchers and went on to do doctoral research on the genus Tyrannus. To this day the sight of an Olive-sided Flycatcher is just beyond thrilling.

That summer was magical in so many ways. In addition to the banding program, which took up a lot of our time, we did breeding bird surveys with Trevor in Myles Standish State Forest and I remember learning how to estimate tree height by holding up a 3 meter stick and and multiplying it mentally. One night we helped Brian set up a cannon net and carefully herded 350 Red Knot towards it before detonating the net. That was a whopping success and we were up many hours banding all those birds in the field. There was time for birding too – a report of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in Manomet village had us all out looking for it. Imagine getting your first look at a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher on someone’s clothesline in eastern Massachusetts!

In early June, I accompanied Kathleen Anderson to the annual meeting of the Wilson Ornithological Society held in Pellston, Michigan at the University of Michigan Biological Station, where I would meet some of the great “old-time” ornithologists of the 20th century. That meeting led to several very interesting and even life-changing experiences that I’ll come back to in another post. It was exciting to attend my first professional meeting – the first of many. At this point it was only 2 years since my first day of birding.

Life at Manomet Bird Observatory was so rewarding, so full of the kinds of experiences and educational opportunities I needed, that I decided I couldn’t go back to Barnard, with its emphasis on reductionist biology and its dearth of natural science courses. Instead I spent the fall at MBO and continued to learn as much as I could about birds, and applied to and was accepted at a school with a more balanced biology curriculum: Smith College.

I’ll describe one last Manomet adventure, which occurred on my birthday, Sunday November 17th. We had heard reports of a gray-phase Gyrfalcon on Monomoy Island off Cape Cod, and my friend and former MBO intern Paul Donohue and I set out in a canoe to see if we could find it. It was an incredibly mild day for mid-November and the sea was calm and flat as glass. We hiked the length of the island, racking up an impressive list of 15 species of ducks and a whopping 54 Dovekie, among other sea and land birds. We finally found the falcon at the lighthouse at the southern end of the island. A wonderful birthday, still the best I’ve ever had. We were fortunate, as that day turned out to be the last one of the season that one could sanely consider canoe travel off the coast of Chatham, Mass. My Monomoy bird list is the last one I recorded from my MBO days, and thus an appropriate close to my account of a wonderful chapter in my life.

The next step in Rip’s education

So 1972 was a big year for Rip – she started birding, with Central Park as the incubator for a growing interest in ornithology. What could help to move this interest along?

First of all, I was growing pretty tired of being in school, even though Dalton was and remains an excellent institution. My parents suggested I might drop out and take a year to do other things, and one of the things I did was to take an evening class in German at NYU and volunteer at National Audubon Society in the office of American Birds Magazine, working with Robert Arbib and Susan Drennan and helping with the Christmas Bird Count and Breeding Bird Survey parts of the publication. It was not always thrilling work, but it got me more familiar with bird names and places and the people watching and studying them, as well as giving me the chance to meet a lot of bird people who had doings and comings and goings at National Audubon.

I don’t remember where I got the idea that Cornell University was a good place for the study of ornithology, but it was a good idea. I wrote to the man who had recently replaced the legendary Olin Sewall Pettingill, Jr. as the ornithology professor at Cornell, namely James L. Tate, Jr. to ask if he was doing ornithology research and if so, could he use an assistant? In those days, without the internet or any other way to collect information rapidly and assess the possibilities, it was a slow process to work one’s way through ideas. I stuck with the first one I had, and after a few letters back and forth, Jim suggested I apply to take ornithology during Cornell’s summer session the following year. That is what I did- it was my first college course and my first time in a classroom with college students (I don’t really count the NYU night course), prior to starting college at Barnard in the fall (yes it is possible for a high school dropout to go to college!). I did well in the lecture and field part of the course, but not so great in the lab because we had to learn the names of a lot of muscles (not sure this was the greatest idea to get people interested in birds, but I could be wrong) and I just wasn’t into it. Paradoxically, I would go on to do my Ph.D. research (less than 10 years later!) on limb myology in tyrant flycatchers, so you just never know when something is going to turn out to be important to you – even something you hate at first. But at the very least, everyone should know the names of the muscles they’re eating for Thanksgiving dinner, right? “Yes please, I’d like the iliotrochantericus caudalis if it’s available”.

Summers in Ithaca, NY are hot and muggy, but we had great birding opportunities in the ornithology course and took frequent field trips. Shockingly and uncharacteristically, I didn’t keep lists for most of them so those data are probably lost to science (if anyone reading this was a part of that course in the summer of 1973 and would like to share your lists – please let me know!). It was an education-packed summer that got me into disciplined habits, so I was ready for my first semester of college a month after the course ended. I continued participating in the field trips, speaker series and other programs of my home town bird club, the Linnean Society of New York, and as I hinted in an earlier post, one of the evening speakers in the coming year was to have a profound impact on my future as an ornithologist.

My first day of birding

My first day of birding is one I will never forget: May 6th, 1972. It came about because I was talking with one of my brother’s friends at school one day. I remember that we were in the library at Dalton, up on the mezzanine level and I’m not sure how we managed to have this conversation when the librarian was such a stickler for rules and should have been heckling us to stop talking. Somehow the topic of Hermit Thrushes came up (typical casual high school conversation, right?). I knew the Hermit Thrush song because my mother loved this bird and had pointed out its voice to me during summer visits to western Massachusetts, but I had never seen the bird itself. Hugh told me he could show me as many as half a dozen if I wanted to meet him at Central Park the following Saturday and bring a pair of binoculars. I took the bus across town at the appointed time and found Hugh and we spent the morning birding, ending with a list of 30 species including 5 Hermit Thrushes as well as 15 species of warblers (Cerulean Warbler on my first day of birding!!) and a Lincoln’s Sparrow! I was pretty well hooked. I managed another 5 trips to the park that month – a week later I had my first Chuck-will’s Widow – in Central Park of all places (seen by numerous other, experienced birders) – at which point I left town for the summer with my family and apparently I didn’t keep any more lists until September. By then I had joined the Linnean Society of New York and went on a couple of shorebirding trips with them and did a Christmas Bird Count in December (I still remember warming up with some pretty glorious fish chowder at the end-of-day feast and tally). I was somewhat limited because I wasn’t old enough to drive, Hugh had graduated and if I wanted to go birding at the only places I could access on my own like city parks, I was putting myself at some physical risk. So I only went when I could find someone to go with me. The one time I tried to go on my own to Central Park I encountered an unsavory character who flashed me and I was pretty upset about it. It’s sickening to think there are men out there who would do such a thing to a child, and it makes me sad that girls all over the world are unable to do many things they love because they feel, and in fact are, unsafe.Maybe this is why hard core birding is still a pastime dominated by men.

The following year saw an increase in opportunities for birding with the Linnean Society and on other trips with friends I made along the way. I loved attending the monthly meetings of my hometown bird club – we met at the American Museum of Natural History, at night, and I felt so privileged to have access to this magical place during a time when it was closed to the general public. I always detoured left as I walked through the Hall of North American Mammals – rather than walking straight towards the Alaska Brown Bears I made for the diorama featuring two timber wolves running across frozen Gunflint Lake in northern Minnesota, with deer tracks visible in the snow, the aurora borealis on the horizon and a Great Gray Owl surveying the scene in the background. For some reason the museum always smelled like pine trees. After this peaceful walk through the dimly lit, deserted hall I entered the Linder Theater, bustling with the activity of birdwatchers and amateur and professional ornithologists excited about reconnecting with friends and colleagues and eager for the evening’s program. It was 1972.

Two years later I would attend a talk that changed my life. That’s a story for another time.